Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 212-214
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Big Plans: The Allure and Folly of Urban Design. By Kenneth Kolson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Pp. xvii+236. $34.95.
The two touchstones for Kenneth Kolson in Big Plans are Lewis Mumford's The City in History and Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, both first published in 1961. Kolson takes his own book's title from a quote attributed to Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912), the Chicago-based [End Page 212] architect whose large-scale planning and monumental civic buildings were anathema to both Mumford and Jacobs: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans. . . ." Kolson asserts that Jacobs and Mumford still provide urgently needed wisdom for those of us who care about cities, because their writing emphasizes "lived experience" (p. 3). He then posits as his central theme "the way that human nature first spawns and then thwarts the planning instinct" (p. 6), how big plans "stir men's blood" but inevitably disappoint.
The book's eleven readable chapters cover disparate topics broadly, from twentieth-century recreations of ancient Rome to built-up clusters of Native North America (he is reluctant to call them cities), from the City Beautiful movement, utopian suburban schemes, and urban renewal in Cleveland to advocacy planning. There are critiques of Evry New Town near Paris, the planning and construction of the British Library, the changes in St. Andrews University in Scotland, and SimCity.
While most big plans seem to exist only on paper, those images are "all too dangerously efficacious in arousing complicated human passions and expectations that they are unable to fulfill," a dashing of hopes that Kolson calls "futilitarianism" (p. 5). He laudably questions basic assumptions about planning, arguing that it is not neutral, rational, or inevitably positive. In this sense, his approach is instructive for historians of technology who examine technical innovations that may not be adopted due to "human cussedness and whimsy" (p. 7). Also relevant to Technology and Culture readers is Kolson's critique of the oversimplifications and distortions created in virtual worlds (whether SimCity or a recreation of Trajan's Forum) that lack "the multiplicity of negotiated landscapes" of real cities (p. 22).
Kolson's discussion of the British Library by Colin St. John Wilson, finally completed in 1998, works well as architectural criticism. But there is an odd disjunction between other chapters that discuss large public projects in major metropolises and the one that analyzes the British Library and the French National Library. The writings of Jacobs and Mumford inform the material, but useful connections could have been made among Cleveland, London, and Paris and their monumental schemes. Kolson complains about "the 'edifice complex' that equates public architecture with the city" (p. 94), yet in several sections he does not move beyond his own analysis of civic buildings to broader issues.
Sometimes Kolson's assessment of these broader issues derives from personal experience, without then being effectively linked back to the social dimensions of planning. About the Washington, D.C., Metro he comments: "[P]eople's germs and hygiene lapses . . . are unpleasant. . . . Less tolerable are the bad manners on permanent display" (p. 138). He likens bad manners on the Metro to the "constructive vandalism" (p. 139) done to Le Corbusier's 1926 housing in Pessac, France, where residents personalized their dwellings, considerably altering the original design. [End Page 213] This parallel is unconvincing, given the contrasts in cultures, decades, and forms of behavior.
Kolson states at the outset that he is engaged only in some "modest scholarly tuckpointing" (p. 13). He then proceeds to pose questions that are beyond what tuckpointing can address. The result is a volume full of stimulating tidbits, insightful analyses, and quirky gripes. The author "bring[s] to the fore those qualities of the city that cannot be accounted for by formal plans, [so] an element of nonlinearity is introduced to simulate the role of spontaneity, even randomness, in the...